Christmas at Cape Maclear… well, almost.

As I sat eating my Christmas lunch on Christmas Day I considered again the events which had led me there. It had all started with my motorbike, really.

I had left the bike the weekend before in Blantyre (described in a previous post) at Allen the mechanic’s workshop, for some minor repairs and servicing. Although the bike drove adequately before the service, it had spluttered a bit and Allen himself, after a test ride, had commented that it seemed to lack power, and that a service would perk it up. So after work as usual on Tuesday in Zomba, I got a lift back down to Blantyre with Rob and spent yet another pleasant evening at his house. The next evening, Christmas Eve, I would be relaxing with friends on the beach at Cape Maclear. I couldn’t wait!

Early the next morning, me excited with the anticipation of a smoothly running motorbike, Rob drove us over to Allen’s workshop as arranged and we were let in by one of the mechanics. The yard is full of 4×4’s in various states of disassembly and repair, with workers busy bolting and welding, and a few friendly dogs rushing out to greet visitors. I patted the dogs and greeted the mechanics at work, but did not immediately see my motorbike in the yard. I felt the briefest flash of worry, but only momentary, as I hadn’t even asked after Allen. A mechanic sauntered up to me, questioningly, uncertain, curious. I clearly had merely to explain the purpose of my visit, and all would be revealed.
“I’ve come to fetch my motorbike,” I announced.
There was a reassuring flash of understanding, and then a pause, that Malawian pause which causes the heart briefly to flutter with anxiety.
“A motorbike?”
Evidently this poor mechanic had been left out of the loop, and it was my privilege to enlighten him. I explained that I had left a bike in the yard on Saturday morning, for a few minor repairs and servicing, and that I had arranged to pick it up on Wednesday morning, which is why I was here now, on Wednesday morning at 7am. The mechanic, far from accepting my explanation, dared to doubt my story.
“Ah, no, I don’t know, here,” he smiled reassuringly. “You know what it looks like?”
“It’s a Honda, XL125, it’s red.” (‘Course I bloody know what it looks like!)
“Ah, no, I don’t know.” Rob heard this and looked dismayed but calmly resigned. He stood waiting patiently next to his car.
A wisp of panic overtook me as I looked around the yard and saw no bike at all. But still I was not really worried. The bike had obviously been worked on, fixed up, and then placed under cover or locked up by Allen for safe keeping out of the rain. All I needed to do was speak to Allen. I asked if I could speak to Allen. The mechanic, still smiling and eternally helpful despite his stream of negative responses, told me that he was not here now.
“He has gone out.” My panic was overtaken by self-righteous indignation, which I tried to hide.
“But maybe you can look for your bike?", the mechanic offered with a helpful wave of his hands over the yard.
I gazed across car bonnets and past wing-mirrors, scanning for any possible bike-like shape or closed locker, but saw nothing. Then, next to the house, under the eaves, I saw a tarpaulin with some forms under it. I walked over, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Gingerly lifting the tarpaulin, I saw the tail of a red Honda! But it did not fill me with hope. Even before I noticed that the bike was still dirty and unworked on, I knew that this was indeed my bike, and that it had been under this tarpaulin since I had left it at the workshop four days ago. It was untouched. The bike was not ready, and I would not ride back to Zomba this morning, and would not ride to Cape Maclear. My disappointment was substantial, though I reminded myself that this was Malawi and things rarely run smoothly according to plan.

I recalled all of this very clearly as I sat picking at my lunch on Christmas Day, contemplating the events which culminated in this plate of chicken and rice in front of me. The chicken was fried in the typical Malawian style, and tasty. I had been told a few days before that rice is the traditional Christmas starch, instead of the usual nsima. So I was enjoying traditional Malawian Christmas fare, at least.

MalawiTownsCroppedSouthern  Back at Allen’s workshop on Christmas Eve the day before, I had resigned myself to taking a minibus to Cape Maclear, and I arranged to fetch my motorbike after Christmas. Yes I would still be relaxing on the beach at Cape Maclear that very evening! Rob dropped me off at the station, and the minibus to Zomba was blissfully uneventful. After packing, I left Zomba at 13h00, allowing four and a half hours to cover the 189km to Monkey Bay, from where Kieran, a kind fellow volunteer, would pick me up for the short drive on to Cape Maclear. Bizarrely, there is no public transport connection from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear, so the lift from Kieran is essential. But, as described before, minibus travel can be agonisingly slow. And so it was. The minibus moved by inches rather than miles. I texted Teresa, a fellow volunteer who was coming from Lilongwe also to Monkey Bay to be picked up by Kieran. Alas, she had overslept, missed her bus, and was now planning on spending a grim Christmas alone while others celebrated. At 16h00 the minibus pulled into the bus station at Mangochi, a small riverside town on the extreme south end of the lake. This was as far as it was going today. To get to Monkey I’d have to catch another minibus. How long would that take? Answers varied from the optimistic “half-an-hour” to the utterly unrealistic “three hours”. I had 90 mins. Get there any later than 17h30 and it gets too dark to complete the return journey to Cape Maclear on the poor dirt road. The options, as I saw them, were to take the bus now and risk getting stuck in Monkey Bay, or stay in Mangochi now and travel to Monkey tomorrow, Christmas Day. Teresa texted me to say she could get to Monkey Bay by 10h30 tomorrow morning. From there we would be at Cape Maclear by 11h30 if Kieran came to fetch us. That sounded like a plan! It was settled. I’d stay over on Christmas Eve in Mangochi, and Teresa and I would meet in Monkey Bay tomorrow morning, to be in Cape Mac before lunch.

P1030729-P1030731                              Mangochi – view over river from bridge

So I was not going to be relaxing on the lakeshore on Christmas Eve as originally planned. But, I told myself, that’s Malawi, and I would be there tomorrow morning, and it would make a good story over Christmas lunch.P1030728 I found a nice lodge near the river, and had a pleasant evening, some of it chatting to the retired Anglican Bishop for Northern Malawi. There is a war memorial near just outside the lodge gates, the first such deliberate reminder of history that I’d seen in Malawi, and thus a curiosity in itself. On the wall inside the lodge reception there was a copy of a newspaper article describing the first naval battle of World War I, which was fought on Lake Malawi, amazingly.  The article, like the battle apparently, was hilarious and shambolic, suitably befitting of a Malawian event.P1030743a The inefficiency with which such a historic battle could be fought in Malawi consoled me in my own misadventure. (If you click on the photo it should open up larger so you can read it.) The menu also had some unusual dishes. P1030740



I recalled all this clearly as I sat eating my chicken and rice for Christmas Lunch the next day. The rice was flavoured with some tasty tomato and onion relish, and complimented the chicken nicely. The other Malawians around me were sitting with their families in the small concrete room. I wondered what my friends in Cape Maclear were having for lunch. And then I thought about my day so far, how my little adventure had continued.

That morning, Christmas Day, after a good night’s sleep at the lodge in Mangochi, I set off walking down the street towards the bus depot on Christmas Day, sun shining on my back and a song in my heart (as my friend Nicus says). I boarded a minibus, and watched and waited as the whole “we’re about to leave” charade was repeated for an hour before we left. But nothing was going to dampen my spirits. I was reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, about the utility of making intuitive judgements and decisions sometimes. Teresa texted me to say that she had been sitting waiting for a minibus in Lilongwe for an hour with no success so far. No problem, I replied, I’d be in Monkey Bay soon and would wait for her. Merry Christmas! My minibus eventually left Mangochi, and Teresa texted to say she’d found a minibus bound for Monkey Bay and was just waiting to leave. On my minibus, after a few stops to pick up people and the odd chicken, we arrived in Monkey Bay at 10h30. I walked around to get a feel for the small town, and texted Teresa to say I was there. She texted back that her progress was slow, and I’d see her around lunch time. I walked up and down, trying to be polite but un-encouraging to the various Malawians who came up offering friendship, tours, help and wooden trinkets. One guy in particular, Duncan, walked with me and talked in good English about how hard the current economic situation was, and how few tourists were coming through. I listened, offered sympathy, but did not want to commit to a full conversation which could last a long time. So I found a small quiet kiosk and sat inside, to read my book and wait. Chapter Three of Blink was about how tall, good-looking people tend to be more successful because people instinctively (and mistakenly) attribute positive qualities to them. The walls in the small empty kiosk were painted with garish pictures which distracted me between page-turns.

P1030744       In the picture above the poor lion is pierced all over by small 
       arrows and is dripping blood. The Ngoni of the title are visible
                       in the distance  on the right.

Chapter Four was about the effectiveness of intuitive decision-making in situations like wartime or stock trading, when too much information is liable to befuddle one’s brain. I got up to stretch my legs and walk around outside. Someway during Chapter Five people started sauntering in to the kiosk, not many, but enough to make my sitting in the corner reading feel a bit awkward. I looked at my watch. It was 1pm. The chicken they were eating at the next table looked pretty good. “Can I have one of those?” I asked the smiling host, who had watched me sitting there for the last two hours. So lunch was tasty. Chicken, rice, tomato relish, and some Malawi spinach. I texted Teresa to hear about her progress. She spent her Christmas lunch on a hot minibus, in the sun, wearing jeans and a long-sleeve top, slowly roasting. I felt for her. She was only passing Ntcheu now. Wait, Ntcheu??! Ntcheu is too far south! Even I know that, and I’m rubbish with directions. But they tell her on the bus that she’s going in the right direction. So maybe I’m wrong after all.  The empty chicken plate is cleared and the waiter, perhaps feeling sorry for me, says he will bring a chair and I can sit outside under the awning next to the kiosk. It’s a nice spot, with a light breeze and a reed fence surrounding, over which I can just see people passing when I sit. I finish Chapter Five, and then Duncan finds me again, this time with a tall heavily built friend. Both are fairly well dressed, with dark glasses. Duncan resumes his previous conversation about his poverty, and says that these are his only shorts which he is wearing. They are smart and clean, and I don’t believe him. He pressures me to buy some of his wares, or at least look at them. I resist, saying no I’m not interested in buying anything now, but he continues. “You do not have to buy. I just want to show you what I make.” Still I resist, but he persists with his “no pressure just look” tactic. I eventually concede to look, and he quickly leaves and returns with a large felt bag, which he empties carefully onto a felt sheet. They are all wooden necklaces and such, well made, but none of which I remotely like. Nobody I know will wear them I think. The designs are boring. I look carefully and methodically, and then tell him gently that I don’t want to buy anything. He starts putting on more pressure. We’re both still sitting in the shade of the awning next to the kiosk. I admit they are well made, but tell him that nobody I know will wear them, so there is no point in buying any. “Buy them anyway,” he says. We have reached a delicate decision point. I know that he is very poor relative to me, but suspect that he has enough money to buy stylish clothes, and his manner suggests a smooth confidence not found in the desperate or hungry. But I am irritated by this apparent falseness, because right from the start he appeared to want something more than conversation, and this is obviously it. I cannot know this, but strongly suspect it. The cool intrusive friendliness was a long prelude to a sale. And he has promised me that I need only look, not buy. So I decide I will hold him to his word. I refuse to buy. The friend is disgusted, and snorts and mutters something angrily, kicking some loose stones. Duncan looks astonished, but packs up his wares slowly and methodically. I do feel a bit guilty. Am I being churlish and pedantic on Christmas Day? Anyway, some time has passed. Teresa is now in Balaka, completely the wrong direction. She’ll be a while still. She texts me to say I should go on, not to wait, but I reckon the job’s half done so I’ll stick around in Monkey Bay till she arrives. I pack my book away and wonder into town with my backpack. Since I’ve got nothing else to do and time to kill, I get a haircut. K300, presumably mzungu prices, but again it was a solid haircut. Back to my chair under the awning. Chapter Six and the Epilogue finish the book for me. By this time I’m in a Zen-like state of peaceful resignation. This is a feeling I only tend to get when travelling and waiting, and it’s pleasurable. No pressure to do anything, no obligation, anonymity – just time passing, and the sun is shining. It’s freeing, but I’m glad I’ve got two books nevertheless.

Teresa arrives at 17h30, just as Kieran pulls in to pick up whoever’s there. Teresa’s minibus did a massive loop southwards rather than just cutting across from Lilongwe, so a three hour trip became a seven hour trip. During the drive to Cape Maclear Kieran fills us in on recent gossip, and the rough road passes through the beautiful scenery of the Lake Malawi National Park. We all arrive in time for Christmas supper, and I completely forget that I’ve travelled for 30 hours to get there. This was certainly the most unique Christmas I’ve had so far.


1 Comment »

  1. Mom said

    Hi Gareth, just catching up on your blog again. Wondered when we would hear about Christmas! I have just finished reading “Blink” – loaned to me by Beatrice. Dad has also read it. We both found it fascinating.

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